When It Comes to God, Does Stephen Hawking Know What He's Talking About?

One of the world's great physicists dips into religion

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World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking is an undisputed master of his domain--theoretical physics. In recent months, however, the wheelchair bound theorist has strayed into some peripheral territory. For example, in April he warned that earthlings should not contact alien life, since any being sophisticated enough to respond would likely be sophisticated enough to destroy us. He's also pontificated on time machines, and the human colonization of space, and, of course, God.

It's this latter area that seems fuzziest to critics. In a widely-publicized section of his new book The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking claims that there's no need to assume a prime mover or divine creator behind the Big Bang. Instead, it's likely to have arisen spontaneously. Is Hawking, one of the great minds in physics, out of bounds when commenting on matters of philosophy and religion? Many of the answers have been negative.

  • We Should Listen to Evidence, Not Just Authority The Washington Post's Herb Silverman, founder of the Secular Coalition for America, says we shouldn't take whatever Hawking says as necessarily true: "Hawking has not ended the God debate. All he's said is that God is not necessary to explain a spontaneous creation of our universe, humans, or anything else. As accomplished a cosmologist as Hawking is, no scientist would ever declare, 'Steven Hawking said it, I believe it, and that settles it.' Scientists require evidence, not an appeal to authority."
  • Religious Figures, Some Scientists Say He's Strayed As quoted by Javier Espinoza in the Wall Street Journal, Baroness Greenfield, a prominent UK scientist, bristled at Hawking and Mlodinov's ideas: "Of course they can make whatever comments they like but when they assume, rather in a Talibanlike way, that they have all the answers, then I do feel uncomfortable." Another British scientist who is also a minister said that just as he has a Christian perspective, "Hawking brings his atheistic pre-suppositions" to interpreting data. "But both are positions of faith - science cannot prove or disprove God."
  • These Men Are Not Philosophers  The Economist reviews the book rather roughly. "The authors rather fancy themselves as philosophers, though they would presumably balk at the description, since they confidently assert on their first page that 'philosophy is dead.'... It soon becomes evident that Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow regard a philosophical problem as something you knock off over a quick cup of tea after you have run out of Sudoku puzzles. ... Once upon a time it was the province of philosophy to propose ambitious and outlandish theories in advance of any concrete evidence for them. Perhaps science, as Professor Hawking and Mr Mlodinow practice it in their airier moments, has indeed changed places with philosophy, though probably not quite in the way that they think."
  • A Genius, With a Gift for Self-Marketing?  Matthew C. Nisbet at BigThink asks a pointed question of the eminent physicist, lumping in scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. "How much of the celebrity status attained by Hawking and Dawkins is attributable to the power, authority, and veracity of their ideas, and how much of their success derives from a personal genius for marketing, framing, and self-promotion?" He seeks an answer from Declan Fahy, who has studied these figures. He gives an ambivalent answer, noting that "Hawking has always seemingly been aware of marketing." He finishes with another question, "Is the book and its brand-name first author review-proof, as its formula can perhaps be reduced to: Hawking + God + high-end physics + theory of everything = guaranteed bestseller?"
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